Following on from the previous article, there are many things PhD students learn to be good at. Obviously it’s easiest to stay in the field and setting you’ve already been trained in, which means you apply for a post-doc position with focus on your preferred field of research. But for all those who don’t perceive academia as a promising future it is often difficult to see what else is available. Even though only a 19% minority of PhD students still stays in academic research 3 years after graduating, it seems to be a mystery where their former colleagues disappear to. Alternative career options typically aren’t advertised during a standard PhD programme. Why?
Universities certainly don’t want to miss out on their brightest heads. But the other reason is that many high-profile jobs might not even be advertised at all. You are supposed to look for them to show the employers that you are serious about getting hired. That you are willing to do what is necessary to get their attention.
This post is the second part of my series about non-academic jobs. I’ll kick it off with a few examples of roles that are suitable for life science PhDs.
Which jobs are suitable for life science PhDs?
As my own background is in the life sciences I will limit this post to opportunities for life science PhDs only. Obviously, the list is not exhaustive. If you have any additional suggestions or, even better, first hand experience in an alternative career, please feel free to get in touch or use the comment box below and I am happy to include your insights.
There are many different roles within a typical pharmaceutical company. I have decided to focus on the following three, which I think are the most commonly chosen occupations by ex-academics. I was briefly employed as an assistant in both RA and clinical trial management.
Qualifications: The sad truth for all jobs in pharma is that your PhD will not give you any advantage over other people without degree. At least not initially and during recruitment (looking at senior positions the situation changes – your PhD might push you quicker and further than others if you manage to get a foot in the door). If you are fresh out of university you might actually find it hard to get hired because you are missing valuable industry experience. This means you will have to start at entry-level jobs, accept low salaries and perhaps not the most intellectually stimulating tasks. Pharma companies do not actively look for PhDs and especially in clinical trial management many entry-level positions will not be advertised or classified as such. The challenge for you is to find out who hires (know your company!), show initiative when contacting them, try to network as much as you can (fairs etc) and – most importantly – find out what the entry-level job is called. It might sound ridiculous but especially in clinical trials management these roles can be anything from “clinical research analyst” to “clinical study coordinator”. Industrial placements can open doors, if you manage to get them. While you rise through the ranks you might be forced to change your company from time to time, however the salary will typically rise with the experience and make the invested time worthwhile.
Regulatory affairs officers look after the appropriate licensing, marketing and legal compliance of pharmaceutical and medical products to ensure their safety. They combine scientific, legal and business knowledge to ensure products meet the required legislation and advise on and coordinate the approval and registration of pharmaceuticals.
Clinical Trials Management
This role involves looking after new and ongoing clinical trials within the company. It is a very mobile, versatile job, where time is typically spent in the office as well as on different study sites (hospitals etc), talking to different partners, clients and staff (from hospital staff, medics to patients), making sure clinical trials are conducted as planned. Other duties include preparation of protocols, case reports, data management, review of ethics committee reports and other administrative tasks to ensure the smooth running of the clinical research department.
Research and development (also in Biotech)
These jobs are probably easier to get for STEM PhDs than the previous two, because necessary qualifications and skills are mostly covered by previous research training – it’s bench-work but with a defined goal: to create new medicines, quickly and safely. However, a post-doc in academia is entirely different from a post-doc in R&D in industry. The lack of freedom is rewarded with a gain in job security and (likely) salary. Your favourite project to cure cancer might be cancelled if deemed unworthy, by decree of the higher-ups, but at least you can immediately start working on a different one without having to apply for funding first. The focus is on making things work quickly and generating money, not on accumulating knowledge in basic research. R&D jobs are relatively easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. Check google for R&D centres of the big pharma players – there might be one near you – and then use their websites to apply. How to tailor your CV to meet industry expectations is a whole different story, though. Again the key line is: experience counts and will get you in quicker. If you have already done your PhD in pharma or biotech: congratulations, you’ve got your ticket. But even with an academic PhD you might be able to convince recruiters you’ve got the necessary skills: projects that involve a process or technique or a translational science application will go a long way when you apply for an R&D role in pharma or biotech. Especially if it’s in a similar discipline as your future job. In addition, you should try to get the right combination of hard and soft skills: teamwork skills will help as well as classes in statistics, business, process engineering or technical marketing to prove that you’ve always been on the industrial side of things. Remember: now is a good time to apply for these roles because you’ve got the skill they want but don’t expect a massive salary increase. Don’t wait until after your academic post-doc, it’s going to get harder.
Sometimes it can also help to explore a different industry route first, if you do not get into your preferred pharma job immediately. Some of my colleagues in scientific publishing for instance applied successfully for pharma jobs after adding editorial experience to their CVs and managed to get into the same position they previously were not selected for when applying as a post-doc. In general, industry favours industry experience and any additional qualification in this area that you can add to your portfolio will help.
Click here for a complete list of roles for scientists in the pharmaceutical industry plus interviews with people in these jobs.
Job description: Businesses, universities and other organizations hire consulting firms to provide an outside perspective and analytical skill to help address pressing strategic or practical issues. Management consultancies serve businesses; higher education consultancies serve colleges and universities.
Qualifications: In some large management consulting firms STEM PhDs are preferred over humanists and social scientists for their analytical skill, so this gives you an advantage. A starting position is usually some sort of “associate”, or “junior associate consultant” – a PhD already gives you a higher starting level as an MSc or lower degree which means your time was well invested. Many large management consulting firms (e.g. McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group) hire PhDs right out of university, so make sure you find out if they are hosting recruiting events at your institute. During these events you typically receive a lot of information about how to prepare your application and deal with the interviews and tests. Preparation is key, however, the good thing about consulting is that initially it is all about your soft skills (problem-solving, intellectual curiosity, knowledge and technical expertise) and what you make of them. You will not need a business degree to get hired. But your preparation should ideally include business courses or informational interviews with consultants. Learn about businesses, the major firms and what their specialties are and practice cases for the case interview.
How to find: It’s best to identify a firm you would like to work for and then apply on their website online. McKinsey, for instance, accepts applications for starting roles all year round.
This was my own choice after my PhD – I started at a Reviews journal.
Job description: First off, I can only repeat what several editors have told me before: editing is not writing. If you enjoy working with text, reading and analysing the newest scientific literature (and selecting the most promising contributions), pay a lot of attention to detail and enjoy improving a text over and over until its perfect (for Reviews), then this job might be for you.
Qualifications: The good news is that a PhD in any science will be all the qualification you need to get into an assistant or even associate editor position on a science journal. BUT: when you apply make sure that the journal’s scope actually reflects your scientific expertise. This gives you an advantage over other researchers who might not be specialists in the respective disciplines. Editing jobs are very sought-after so you will have to make sure to stand out: writing regular articles for blogs, journals or newspapers will prove your language skills and your ability to select interesting material. Doing editing work for magazines gives you additional experience and will help you decide whether the job is for you. All of this can easily be done during your spare time and might give you the final edge over your rival applicant. Once you’ve passed the first obstacle – getting them to select you based on your CV and cover letter – the real challenge begins: you will be tested on every single aspect the job entails. For jobs at Review journals, they will typically send you editing and commissioning tests, and – if your job also includes writing – a writing test which you will have to complete within a few days. If you are successful, you are invited to attend the formal interview. For primary research journals, the initial tests are typically a bit easier, e.g. writing a research highlight, and the focus is more on whether you are the right fit scientifically and have enough expertise in your field. Postdocs have an advantage here (but PhDs also get hired) and a reasonable publication list, preferably within the journal’s scope, can be used to prove your value. Once this stage is passed you are invited for the interview and the dreaded manuscript test, during which you have to assess a number of papers. Please note that these procedures vary from journal to journal and among publishers.
How to find: Editor jobs are commonly posted anywhere on the web, from naturejobs, indeed jobs to the guardian website. It is a good idea to watch out for them on the publisher’s website of the journal you want to get in (e.g. for nature that would be springernature). Agencies such as Inspiredselection or Atwood Tate can help you to identify suitable employers, however, they typically prefer people with editing experience and might not initially accept you as a client.
Medical writers are specialised writers who produce scientific documents, typically for the pharmaceutical or biotech industry (e.g. for clinical research or drug descriptions etc). No specific qualifications are required for medical writing, but normally a writer would have a biomedical science degree and often a higher degree. In contrast to science editing, the focus is more on the preparation of medical or scientific texts in different specialised areas, the salary is typically lower. Experienced writers are preferred for most jobs but entry level jobs are also available. Many medical writing jobs are offered by medical writing agencies that might span a wide range of different scientific disciplines. It pays off to have a thorough look at them, as they are typically able to accommodate PhDs from a variety of backgrounds. A comprehensive list of MedComms agencies in the UK can be found here. Medical writing courses are also available that will help you get started. More information is provided here and here.
Science communication (science outreach)
Members of your lab usually find you talking about science rather than at your bench? The part where you explain your research to lay audiences was always the most fun during your PhD? You just love science fairs and are great at organising events? Read on!
Job description: According to the 2014 SciComm conference, Science Communication jobs can come in a lot of sizes and shapes: from science writing, science busking, science fairs, science galleries, school courses, workshops, TV programmes, science comedy, blogs to science buses, museums, pub events and so on – the list is endless. Whichever way you choose to explain your favourite science topic to an audience, it will probably fall into this category.
Qualifications: Some kind of higher science degree is good but not the most important thing (however: if you want to work for high-profile companies or charities such as CR-UK a PhD is obligatory). Experience is crucial. Typically, scicommers will work on fairs, blogs and all sorts of events before they get hired. Most of this is usually done on a voluntary basis, which means: if you think you’re the next Brian Cox, use the time during your PhD wisely. The good thing is that soft skills matter greatly and you can get your experience by doing all kinds of jobs. Every university offers some kind of science outreach program, so make sure to get in touch with them and offer to contribute to projects. Annual scicomm events with excellent visibility and reputation are, for instance, the Pint of science festival or local science festivals. In general, anything counts, as long as you can sell it as “proven track record in effectively communicating complex science to a non-scientific audience” and an “ability to market information and ideas according to different customer needs” or “your ability to inspire others through compelling written and verbal communication” (taken from a scicomm manager job advert by CR-UK). Oh, and of course excellent verbal, organisational, interpersonal and team-playing skills are a must. And this time it is not just a phrase you write on your CV.
How to find: SciComm jobs are advertised (university, company or event websites etc) but you might not find them very easily. The most common source for SciCommers is the trusted PSCI-COM mailinglist where jobs are posted on a regular basis. SciComm LinkedIn groups can also be helpful and social media, such as twitter (#scicomm) or facebook. I’ve heard several people tell the story about how they got into great jobs because their prospective bosses had followed them on twitter.
Do you have a passion for the sciences, law and languages – and want to make good money while focusing on these three? Read on.
Job description: Activities include discussing inventions and processes with inventors or manufacturers and ascertaining whether they are likely to succeed in being granted patents, studying and analysing scientific or technical documents, writing detailed descriptions of inventions in precise legal terms (patent drafts), applying for patents, working with solicitors and barristers to defend or enforce UK patents and more.
Qualifications: To become a patent attorney, a degree (at least a 2:1) is required in a science, engineering, technical or mathematics-based subject. There is no requirement to have a postgraduate qualification, but it may make you a more attractive candidate. Positions are advertised as traineeships. Candidates can apply and, if successful, are then taken through the whole process to become qualified attorneys which includes two year’s on-the-job training, followed by an exam in order to qualify. Find out more about the job here.
How to find: Jobs are advertised online, on the websites of the respective patent firm or e.g. here.
Venture capital and intellectual property
IP commercialisation firms are known to hire ex-academics, as they usually have a strong network within the sciences they can use to find out about new ideas or technologies with commercial potential. In addition, they can bridge the gap between business partners and academic scientists, who might have innovative ideas but lack the skill to apply them commercially. The role of the IP firm is to spot gaps in the market and build businesses based on IP they get from their partner universities. Depending on the type of firm and investment they will provide many types of services and might take an idea “from the cradle to maturity”. Jobs in this area are not always easy to find (unless you live in a major city with focus on innovation and VC) and some of these businesses prefer more experienced ex-academics who have already worked in industry. But preferences depend on the company and many websites of IP firms offer the opportunity to send speculative applications without mentioning mandatory industry experience in their specifications. Entry-level jobs in this area are typically IP scouts and life science analysts, who will travel to different universities and liaise with scientists to find out about potential projects that can then be taken further. Analysts typically stay at the company for years to develop their portfolio and entrepreneurial skills before they might choose to join one of the businesses they have founded. If you are looking for jobs in this area it is helpful to first make a list of VC firms in your city and then apply speculatively, as recruiting cycles can take a long time and may be infrequent, depending on the size of the company.
Keep checking back for new jobs. This list is being regularly updated.
Last update: 21/02/2019